Christian Montag, psychologist: ‘Technostress is when you think, “I’d like to smash the computer”’

The researcher talks to EL PAÍS about the effects of home working, how to measure happiness and why a growing number of people are self-medicating

Christian Montag
Christian Montag, Professor of Molecular Psychology at Ulm University, in an image provided by the professor.
Raúl Limón

Christian Montag is a Professor of Molecular Psychology at Ulm University in Germany, and the author of works and research that investigate the influence of technology on the human mind. His broader field of research encompasses personality psychology, the study of individual differences that determine cognitive abilities, such as intelligence, or why we are more cooperative, extroverted, or anxious. With technology playing an increasingly important role in our lives, the 45-year-old researcher says a multidisciplinary approach is needed to understand how this is affecting us psychologically. Montag has supported the development of a study (the 2022 Wellness and Home Working report) by NFON, a European provider of cloud-integrated business communications. He talks to EL PAÍS about the findings of the report, which are based on a survey – carried out by Statista Q, a specialist in data, analytics and market research – of 8,000 people in eight European countries.

Question. What is technostress?

Answer. It’s a term that was introduced into the scientific literature a couple of years ago, and it came about when people started to deal with those situations that we all face when technology doesn’t work. When you think: ‘I’d like to smash the computer,’ that’s technostress. There have been studies that show how hormones could trigger people to punch machines. We all face technostress in our daily lives, and now with the prevailing home offices for many of us, we face many new challenges resulting in technostress. Just think of the situation created by the pandemic, which forced many people to use video calls and other programs for the first time.

Q. But doesn’t that happen in conventional workplaces as well?

A. True, but even so, if we compare the situation at the beginning of the pandemic and the situation today, we see a change: many people were not adequately prepared from a technological point of view for a well-functioning home office. Digitalization comes with costs to our well-being when the internet connection does not work properly or is too slow or you simply have very old equipment at home. Many people had to renew their devices out of necessity.

Q. Some 28% of respondents say they are working more and, conversely, 36% say they have more time to spend with the family

A. It’s the paradox of working at home. On the one hand, people feel that they are working more, that the workload is intensifying and that they are spending more hours in front of the computer. But on the other hand, they say they have more time for family or leisure. From my view, the key to explaining this paradox is that people do not work need to commute anymore or to a lesser extent. For example, you commute two hours a day. Then we see a worker spending half an hour longer at work, but they also gained an extra hour and a half. This gives them more flexibility to see the doctor or do the grocery shopping, things which before they would do on the weekend. Now they can do it on Wednesdays, when there are not so many people in the supermarket. We are becoming more flexible in many ways.

Q. Another surprising result is that some (8.7%) find it stressful to eat at home.

A. Obviously there are different eating cultures, but I think the main reason has to do with convenience. Not all of us know how to cook properly, and many of us have to learn this. Also, even a simple dish involves preparation or shopping of groceries – some people were not used to this situation.

If I were to investigate happiness, I would ask you how much you have danced, enjoyed yourself in the last few weeks

Q. Self-medication has also increased. Thirty-four percent of respondents say they have self-medicated for the sake of their mental health. Is this related to technostress?

A. If humans are experiencing negative emotions, they tend to try to get rid of them, because negative emotions such as anger, fear and sadness feel bad. Trying to get rid of these, therefore, represents a natural response. For some people, one way to achieve such a downregulation of negative affect, is self-medication. Covid has been a big stressor, and then there came the new situation where we were working exclusively from home. Some people were stressed out not only due to technostress, but they also felt alone because they did not have a person to interact with in times of physical distancing. Also, in the survey we found that people have problems saying: ‘Okay, here is where work stops and my private life begins.’ Work is intruding in everyday life, and it is really difficult to disengage from these things, so this also can be stressful. This led some people to self-medicate (as we saw in our work, where we studied non-prescribed medication). Recent studies beyond our work also suggest that whereas as some people reduced alcohol consumption during the pandemic, others started to drink a lot more. In the end, many factors, including one’s own vulnerability and resilience, play a role in understanding human behavior.

Q. And up to 72% of those surveyed reported taking melatonin to improve their sleep.

A. I think this is not surprising after the pandemic. If people fear the pandemic or experience uncertain situations, they start to ruminate, to think about things that worry them, so lying awake prevents them from getting the right amount of quality sleep.

Q. According to the study, 21.7% of European respondents (25.6% in Spain) say they plan to resign because of their experience working from home and 9.9% have already left their job. Why?

A. We discussed already several challenges arising from the new home office situation and also the problems, which arose from the pandemic, which – from my view – in part, explain why people decide to quit their jobs. A crucial variable, not named in the context of quitting, is that they many of the study respondents saw no option to realize their own potential. Beyond this, I also want to mention that the pandemic has been an opportunity to reflect on life. Up to this point, many lives were going on rather automatically: getting up, working, taking care of children, housework and sleeping. There wasn’t even time to think about misery. Now we have more time on our hands to reflect and think. When we get out of that automatism and let our brains run free for a moment, we give it the chance for mind wandering, self-reflection and even creativity. In this context, we saw in our study that some people came to the conclusion that they didn’t want the life they had before. We saw that life is precious and not infinite. We all strive for a good life and not a bad life, right?

Q. Even if you lose purchasing power?

A. From my personal experience and that of others, I believe that money is ultimately not the most important driver for choosing a job when you are at certain stage in your careers. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman researched, years before the pandemic, the associations between life satisfaction, wellbeing and salary. There comes a point where a salary supplement doesn’t make you happier; maybe it makes you a little bit more satisfied with life, which is more the cognitive aspect, but it doesn’t really make you more happy. If I were to investigate happiness, for instance, I would ask you how much you have danced, enjoyed yourself, in the last few weeks and how much you have cried due to sadness. And again, if you ask about emotional experiences, there comes a point where the salary is not so important (in Kahnemann’s work the threshold is around $75,000 a year). From that point on, happiness doesn’t increase with more money and this is, I think, what a lot of people intuitively know and accept: that they have a decent salary and that what really matters to them is family, that what they want is more time for the good things. It will be really interesting to see whether these perceptions endure when we are confronted again with the automatisms of everyday post-pandemic life, when we fall into the traps and patterns again.

Q. What should companies and workers do in the face of this new reality?

A. We have talked a lot about the downsides, but obviously working from home has given many people many more degrees of freedom to deal with the hassles of everyday life and also to spend more time with the family, but still get the job done. We need to combine the best of both worlds. Working from home is going to stay. But also our research reflects a deep longing to meet and see colleagues, to have real social interactions beyond virtual encounters. There is work looking at video conferencing fatigue and its shows associations with burnout. At the moment, it is discussed that videoconference-fatigue might be triggered due to anxieties about being constantly monitored and about appearing in front of screens (mirror anxiety or being dissatisfied with one’s own facial experience). Moreover, our interaction with others are limited to the frame of the screens. This is not healthy. Videoconferences can be tiring, and it is also harder to read emotions of our interaction partners via screens. We need, from time to time, to see each other in person and also to have a good time. It is the nexus that brings people together, and it is important to develop trust between people. From my view, combining elements of both worlds, the old office and the new home office, would be a solution so that companies and the rest of society come up with a proper plan for what a healthy working life will look like in the near future

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